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Extra Points: Ayanbadejo gives Pats an easy target
By John McMullen, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Baltimore special teams star Brendon Ayanbadejo really stepped in it this past weekend when he started talking trash in advance of Sunday's AFC Championship Game in New England.
In a series of Tweets, Ayanbadejo called the Patriots' extremely effective up- tempo offense a gimmick, needled them for ultimately failing in their near perfect 18-1 season back in 2007, and even brought Spygate before finishing up by ripping the organization for releasing wide receiver Tiquan Underwood a day before the Super Bowl last year.
It was the kind of needless rant which makes coaches wish Twitter accounts came with breathalyzer tests or at least a simple I.Q. hurdle.
As a significant 9 1/2-point underdog, Ayanbadejo's nonchalance on TweetDeck was the equivalent of one of us drunk-dialing an old flame at 2 o'clock in the morning -- no good can come of it.
Few give the Ravens much of a chance of stopping New England's latest march to the Super Bowl, what would be the franchise's sixth appearance on the big stage in the Bill Belichick-Tom Brady era.
Baltimore has often been a speed bump during the Pats' recent success dating back to the aforementioned 18-1 season when New England needed a late Brady touchdown pass to fend off the Ravens.
Two years later, Baltimore did knock out New England with an emphatic 33-14 first-round upset. But, in 2010, the Patriots returned the favor in overtime in the regular season, and then survived last year in the AFC Championship Game when Lee Evans dropped what would have been a game-winning touchdown for the Ravens and Billy Cundiff missed a 32-yard field goal that could have deadlocked things.
The tables turned early in 2012 when Belichick was the one frustrated after a last-second 31-30 setback, chasing after and eventually bumping a replacement official who ruled Ravens kicker Justin Tucker made a 27-yard game-winner which flew directly over the right upright.
No matter how close this rivalry has been at times, though, more often than not the Patriots have gotten the best of Baltimore when it has counted and New England seems to hold a number of significant advantages going into Sunday's contest.
The Pats had the league's top offense during the regular season, producing 427.9 yards per game, and 34.8 points per game, the sixth-highest single- season average all-time.
Brady, who is one of five players to be named Super Bowl MVP multiple times, enters this contest with a 17-6 playoff record, the most wins by a starting quarterback in postseason history. Meanwhile, his .739 winning percentage is now ahead of Hall of Famers Terry Bradshaw (.737) and Troy Aikman (.733) for the top spot in league lore.
The All-Pro has been even better at home, amassing an 11-2 mark and the Patriots as a whole are 14-3 all-time as the host in the playoffs. In AFC title games, New England is an impressive 7-2 and a perfect 4-0 in Foxboro.
The last thing the Ravens needed on top of all that was a Pats team being fueled by the words of a special-teamer, albeit a very good one.
To his credit, Ayanbadejo tried to back off on Monday.
"I made selfish comments on Twitter last night that reflected poorly upon myself, my teammates, and the organization. For that I apologize," Ayanbadejo Tweeted.
The damage, however, was already done.
A Patriots source told CBS' Mike Freeman that Ayanbadejo's quotes had already been circulated through the New England locker room and that "players who are aware of the quotes are furious and feel it is one of the most disrespectful things ever said about the franchise."
That's probably a stretch, but why give Belichick any added ammunition?
While no player should need motivation for a championship game, human nature is human nature and playing this week has become somewhat of a birthright for this Pats group.
Baltimore's best bet was to surprise the sleeping giant, one which would have been looking ahead toward the Super Bowl after reading a week's worth of press clippings about how great it was.
Instead the Ravens will be facing a fired-up bunch ready for battle.
AFC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME
Baltimore (12-6) at New England (13-4), Sunday, 6:30 p.m.
LINE: Patriots by 9 1/2
THE SKINNY: The Pats will once again host Baltimore in the first AFC Championship Game rematch since Denver and Cleveland met in back-to-back conference title games following the 1986 and 1987 seasons.
The Ravens return to Gillette Stadium for the first time since their heartbreaking defeat in last year's AFC Championship Game when New England narrowly escaped with a 23-20 victory, after a potential go-ahead touchdown catch was knocked from the grasp of Evans and Cundiff missed the gimmee field goal attempt in the waning seconds of the fourth quarter.
"We fought hard to get back to this point," Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco said. "We are definitely proud of being here. We are going to give it our all and we know what it felt like last year. We walked off that field without that win. We know what we've put in to get back to this point. It is going to be a great game."
Last Saturday, Baltimore defeated Denver, 38-35, and improved its road playoff record to 8-5 (.615), the highest road winning percentage in postseason history. Flacco's unforgettable 70-yard TD pass to Jacoby Jones was the longest game-tying or game-winning scrimmage touchdown in the final minute of the fourth quarter of an NFL playoff game.
The Patriots, meanwhile, advanced to their 10th AFC Championship Game with a 41-28 win over Houston behind Brady, who surpassed his boyhood hero, Joe Montana, to become the winningest QB in NFL playoff history.
"Tom is a great competitor," Belichick said. "He's our leader and we all follow him. There's no quarterback I'd rather have than Tom Brady."
Brady passed for 344 yards and three touchdowns in the Patriots' win over the Texans, including two TD passes to running back Shane Vereen, who saw extensive playing time in place of the injured Danny Woodhead. Vereen also had a 1-yard touchdown run against Houston, becoming the third player in NFL history with two TD catches and a touchdown run in a postseason contest.
Woodhead, who injured his thumb on the first offensive series against the Texans, is expected to play against the Ravens, but All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski is done for the season after breaking his left forearm for the second time.
"I think the two best teams are in the finals," Brady said. "Baltimore certainly deserves to be here and so do we, so it's very fitting. We played them early in the year. They got us. We're going to have to play our best game this week."
PREDICTION: Patriots 24, Ravens 20
NFC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME
San Francisco (12-4-1) at Atlanta (14-3), Sunday, 3 p.m.
LINE: 49ers by 4
THE SKINNY: The top-seeded Falcons got the playoff monkey off their back this past Sunday and are one step away from a Super Bowl berth as they host the NFC Championship Game for the first time in franchise history against the dynamic Colin Kaepernick and the San Francisco 49ers.
Atlanta built a 20-0 first-half lead which was quickly erased by Seattle. The Seahawks' Marshawn Lynch nearly capped one of the greatest comebacks in NFL history with a 2-yard touchdown run with 31 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter.
Matt Ryan, however, finally lived up to his nickname, "Matty Ice," when it counted. The Pro-Bowler whipped a 22-yard out to Harry Douglas followed by a 19-yarder up the seam to Tony Gonzalez, setting up a 49-yard field goal by Matt Bryant, which sailed through the uprights with eight seconds to play.
"Our quarterback is a special player," Falcons coach Mike Smith said. "They call him 'Matty Ice,' but I feel like we've got two 'Matty Ices.' There's 'Matty Ice' Ryan and 'Matty Ice' Bryant."
Ryan passed for 250 yards and three touchdowns, both career highs in the postseason, and earned his first playoff win.
"I think the one thing that I've learned in my five years, and specifically in the postseason, is that it's hard," Ryan said. "I thought that collectively as a team, and as a coaching staff, nobody flinched. We just kept battling, kept doing what we do, and that's just kind of been the makeup of our team this season."
San Francisco advanced to the franchise's 14th NFC Championship Game, matching the Dallas Cowboys for the most since 1970, thanks to a 45-31 thrashing of Green Bay.
Kaepernick set the tone, accounting for four total touchdowns (two rushing, two passing) and 444 of San Francisco's 579 total yards. In addition to his 263 passing yards, Kaepernick rushed for 181 yards, the most ever by a quarterback in an NFL game.
"He's that new-style quarterback in the NFL that can run the read option, that can pull the ball down, run it and take it the distance from anywhere on the football field. Extremely strong-armed, accurate," said 49ers safety Donte Whitner.
Kaepernick's top target against the Packers was wide receiver Michael Crabtree, who became the third player in team history with at least nine catches (nine), 100-plus receiving yards (119) and two or more TD catches (two) in a playoff game, joining superstars Jerry Rice and Terrell Owens.
PREDICTION: Falcons 27, 49ers 17
01/16 12:26:29 ET